Whose Line Is It?


Despite their recent setback at the Supreme Court, opponents of "partial-birth" abortion are not giving up. They plan to introduce legislation that will address the Court's objections to bans in Nebraska and other states.

That may be tricky. While a clearer definition of the procedure presumably can be written, allowing an exception for the mother's "health," which the Court said is constitutionally required, could nullify the ban in practice.

Still, it's clear why anti-abortion activists want to stick with this strategy. By emphasizing a particularly disturbing method of abortion, in which the doctor sucks out a living fetus's brain before collapsing its skull and delivering a tiny corpse, they are winning in the court of public opinion even as they lose in courts of law.

A similar approach has worked well for anti-gun activists. Back in the 1980s, they started talking about "assault weapons," which they said were particularly dangerous guns favored by criminals.

Deliberately blurring the distinction between semiautomatic guns, which fire once per trigger pull, and machine guns, groups like Handgun Control Inc. created the impression that the streets were awash with "military-style" weapons. But "military-style" bore about the same relationship to "military" as "kosher-style" does to "kosher."

The guns that were covered by state and federal "assault weapon" bans differed only superficially from guns that remained legal. They might have bayonet mounts or pistol grips, but in practical terms they were no more threatening than the firearms that were not considered "assault weapons."

Although "assault weapons" never played a substantial role in violent crime, the term and the imagery associated with it made the National Rifle Association and other gun control opponents seem unreasonable. They anti-gun lobby successfully portrayed them as nuts who thought weapons of war should be completely unregulated.

Now that we have "assault weapon" bans on the books, gun controllers have started emphasizing what they once tried to obscure: The laws do not cover a host of fireams that are just as dangerous as the "assault weapons" (and in many cases more so).

For the sake of consistency, the gun controllers say, these firearms ought to be banned as well. The loopholes must be closed.

"Partial-birth" abortion is serving the same function for the anti-abortion movement that "assault weapons" served for the anti-gun movement. Pro-lifers did not invent the procedure, of course, but they did popularize the term, which clearly signals the aspect of the practice that people find so troubling.

It's not that a "dilation and extraction" (D & X) abortion (the term doctors prefer) is more gruesome than the more common "dilation and evacuation" (D & E) procedure, in which the fetus is dismembered before it's removed piece by piece. If anything, the D & E is bloodier and more reminiscent of murder.

No, what's especially disturbing about a "partial-birth" abortion is the way it seems to mock what could be the beginning of a life. The fetus is partly delivered, only to be killed. The method, which is used only for abortions from about 16 weeks on, emphasizes the thin line between fetus and baby, and therefore between abortion and infanticide.

By demanding an end to this practice, pro-lifers have put their opponents on the defensive, just as gun controllers did by campaigning against "assault weapons." In this debate, it's the doctrinaire supporters of abortion rights rather than the zealous pro-lifers who come across as extremists.

But as with the controversy over "assault weapons," the people pushing the ban are asserting a difference that does not hold up to scrutiny. Although "partial-birth" abortion is symbolically more powerful than the D & E method, it's hard to see why it is morally worse.

Indeed, the people pushing the ban presumably do not believe that it is. They want to stop all abortions, not just this rare variety.

That fact goes a long way toward explaining why supporters of abortion rights are not prepared to demonstrate their reasonableness by conceding this issue, any more than the NRA was willing to go along with an "assault weapon" ban. Like the pro-gun lobby, they are naturally suspicious of an ostensibly modest measure supported by activists whose ambitions go much further.

Assuming they can come up with a formula that will pass muster with the Supreme Court, proponents of a ban on "partial-birth" abortion won't stop there. If they're true to their principles, they will have to start questioning the distinction they've been urging us to accept.